In an 8-0 opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court held yesterday that Exemption 7(C) of the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”)—which exempts from mandatory disclosure law enforcement records the release of which “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy”—does not protect information belonging to a corporation, as opposed to a human being.
The result in FCC v. AT&T, Inc. will not come as any surprise to Court followers, FOIA practitioners, or anyone who listened to oral argument in the case. (As we described in a prior post, during argument, several justices barely bothered to disguise how dubious they found AT&T’s central contention that the inclusion of corporations in FOIA’s definition of “person” allowed corporations to claim that release of certain records could constitute an invasion of their “personal privacy.”) The good news for corporations that submit information to federal agencies is that the case in no way restricts the reach of FOIA Exemption 4. That exemption prevents disclosure of trade secrets and privileged or confidential commercial or financial information and, as Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion goes out of its way to reiterate, “clearly applies to corporations.” Thus, the already heavy reliance on Exemption 4 will, if anything, only increase because of this opinion. (The Court also stated that it was not passing on the scope of corporations’ privacy interests as a matter of constitutional or common law.)
The thrust of the opinion is fairly simple. Citing as many times to dictionaries as to cases, it looks to the plain meaning of the word “personal” in interpreting FOIA’s use of “personal privacy” to exclude artificial “persons.” At argument, the Chief Justice pointed out that adjectives and nouns springing from the same root, such as “squirrel” and “squirrely”, can have totally different meanings. The opinion expands on this theme, listing several other semantically divergent noun-adjective pairings before concluding that “personal” not only does not refer to corporations in the context of FOIA, but in everyday usage often connotes “precisely the opposite of business-related.” Clearly enjoying this subject, the Chief Justice concludes the opinion with some deadpan humor, stating that “[w]e trust that AT&T will not take it personally.”